The South African Air Force (SAAF) has shortcomings, but they are not insurmountable and the service is still very healthy, according to former SAAF chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano.
Gagiano was speaking before the Air Force change of command ceremony held at Air Force Base Swartkop on Friday, when he handed over the reigns of the SAAF to Lieutenant General “Zakes” Fabian Zimpande Msimang.
“There’s still a lot of life in the Air Force – we just need a bit of cash to operate aircraft,” and keep systems operational, Gagiano said. He made it clear that a lack of funding was the most difficult challenge facing the SAAF, something echoed by his successor.
“The threat of an ever shrinking air force budget, poses a fundamental challenge to keep our airpower competencies relevant,” Msimang said, but added that he hoped the current Defence Review would assist the defence force with regard to financial matters. “It is my belief that the Defence Review will place the defence force in a better position for us to be able to carry out our mandate as required by the Constitution of the Republic together with the resources required.”
Msimang also pledged to maintain and strengthen Gagiano’s good relationships and cooperation with Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) air forces and restore the SAAF’s pride and discipline.
Apart from funding, Gagiano noted that one of the other major challenges facing the SAAF is the loss of highly trained personnel, who are leaving the service in droves for the civil market, where salaries are generally better. He said one of the ways to retain staff was to make sure they are passionate and dedicated and have the available resources to fly regularly.
When asked if the SAAF’s fleet was sufficient, Gagiano replied that, “we are a perfectly sized air force for our country and for the budget available.” He pointed out some of the Air Force’s recent highlights, including the establishment of the Denel C-130 maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility at Air Force Base Waterkloof and the delivery of the final four of 26 Gripen fighters. These will head to AFB Makhado outside Louis Trichardt this week, after arriving in Cape Town harbour on September 22.
Gagiano said that the Rooivalk combat helicopter was operational and ready for deployment, but he couldn’t say when they would be deployed, as this depends on the United Nations and Joint Operations. Ten of eleven upgraded Rooivalks have been handed over to 16 Squadron in Bloemfontein, with the final helicopter undergoing flight testing before being handed over by Denel Aviation.
With regard to shortcomings, Gagiano said strategic lift and maritime surveillance were key issues. An order for eight Airbus Military A400M airlifters was cancelled in 2009, but the service life of the fleet of eight C-130 Hercules has been extended from 2015 to 2020. However, what will happen after that is not yet clear and a number of companies are offering C-130 replacements, including Lockheed Martin with its C-130J Super Hercules, Airbus with its C-295 and A400M and Alenia Aeronautica with its C-27J Spartan.
With regard to maritime surveillance, Project Saucepan is underway, which seeks to acquire around half a dozen maritime surveillance aircraft to replace the 70-year old C-47TPs currently used for the task. Gagiano said the project team is currently “looking at all options”. Many companies are vying for this project, including L-3 with its Q400 and Spydr, Saab with its 340 MSA, and Ruag with its Do 228NG, amongst others.
Gagiano said he would like to see the SAAF acquire unmanned aerial vehicles, but noted that the Cessna Caravans fitted with sensor balls are able to carry out reconnaissance missions.
He said there was a definite shortcoming when it came to VIP aircraft for government ministers and other officials – the SAAF has been trying to procure new VIP aircraft to replace its ageing fleet for years, but the deals have always fallen through or been cancelled. However, the Air Force was “following the acquisition process” in acquiring new VIP aircraft.